Let’s return to a discussion of the doctrine of hell and in particular, the concept of hell as eternal conscious torment. According to this concept, to end up in hell is to end up in a state of eternal alienation from God, one which results in unimaginable physical and spiritual/psychological torment. And that torment never ends.
The inevitable question arises: how can God possibly allow a state of affairs so awful, so unimaginably terrible as this?
If you don’t yet resonate with the force of the question, perhaps we can personalize it. Suppose that the damned wretch of which we speak is your own son or daughter. Can you imagine a heaven which exists concurrent with your beloved child suffering unimaginable physical and spiritual/psychological torment forever?
No doubt, many people will reply that they cannot envision such a scenario, even as a remote possibility. How could anyone possibly be reconciled to God in Christ, how could they exist in a state of affairs where there are no more tears (Rev. 21:4), and how could they do so at the very same time that their beloved child is suffering maximally in body and mind in hell?
C.S. Lewis felt the sting of this problem. And in The Great Divorce he sought to provide an answer. In that answer, Lewis opted to dehumanize and depersonalize the damnable wretches that end up suffering forever. This is how he put it:
“Hell begins with a grumbling mood, always complaining, always blaming others … but you are still distinct from it. You may even criticize it in yourself and wish you could stop it. But there may come a day when you can no longer. Then there will be no you left to criticize the mood or even to enjoy it, but just the grumble itself, going on forever like a machine.”
This is a very frustrating passage insofar as it aspires to have its rhetorical cake and eat it too. On the one hand, Lewis suggests that we need not suffer forever with our damned loved ones because at some point “there will be no you left…” On the other hand, he never endorses annihilationism, the claim that human beings are destroyed in the process of damnation. And that leaves one with the impression that in some sense the damnable wretch does exist forever, although not as “you”.
But if it isn’t “you” then who is the individual that is suffering … and why are they suffering for the sins and errors that you committed Assuming that annihilation is off the table, what would it mean to say that the “grumble” goes “on forever like a machine”? So far as I can see, it can only mean that the individual continues to exist and to suffer. However, that individual has been depersonalized as a “grumble,” presumably as a way to reconcile that unimaginably horrific fate with the redeemed parent who is now expected to experience inexpressible joy in heaven.
And this, I would insist, is horrible. No doctrine of hell should be sustained by depersonalizing the damned children of the redeemed as “grumbles”. The conclusion: either embrace the conclusion that your beloved child may eventually suffer unimaginable torment eternally, and that this horrific eventuality is consistent with the world-redeeming goodness of Christianity, or reject the doctrine of eternal conscious torment outright as an intolerable error.